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Swim4TheGulf, Part Two: A great adventure

In May of 2023, I successfully completed the first crossing from Great Barrier Island to Auckland, a near 100-kilometre effort. But this was more than just a swim - it was a Swim4TheGulf.

Swimming in the ocean

Credit: Joshua McCormack

Before reading on, make sure to read Part One of the Swim4TheGulf saga for the full back-story.

The journey begins

The crew assembled the following morning at Buoy Café, Westhaven Marina. There was excitement abuzz; an anticipation of the adventure that lay ahead. It was special to see the entire crew together in one place – friends new and old who had sacrificed their time and had laid aside their responsibilities to be out on the water supporting this mission for the days that followed. After a beverage and slice at the café, it was time to head to the boat and out toward Great Barrier Island.

We knew, based on the forecast, that the swell would be heavy enroute to Great Barrier Island. The forecast was for 20 knot nor’easter winds, with a swell of up to three metres from a similar bearing. As it happened, this was the exact direction that we were heading. The wind was forecast to die down as the day proceeded, and this forecast followed through. However, the swell lingered and caused high levels of seasickness for all but the saltiest sailors of the crew.

Before we set off, all members of the crew had taken down medication to negate or mitigate the queasiness. Unfortunately, the medication failed to have an effect on my tolerance levels. I had added another layer of protection by using pressure bands on my wrists alongside taking down ginger chews; however, neither addition was completely successful. Ultimately, I found myself lying down on a couch in the upper deck of the boat with my eyes closed for most of the journey. I fared better than some members of the crew, who gifted the contents of their stomachs to the ocean. What was a three-hour journey under normal circumstances turned out to be closer to five hours as the boat navigated the swell and wind.

On arriving to the west coast of Great Barrier Island, we were sheltered from the wind and swell, which was welcomed by all. There was an immediate lift in spirits. I emerged from the cabin of the boat, sucking in the air around me to return to an even keel. It’s hard to express the beauty as we entered the safety of the bays, weaving our way through the inner islands to our final landing point of Karaka Bay. Great Barrier Island has a spiritual undertone that simply isn’t matched by the mainland.

Great Barrier Island

In the safe harbour of Great Barrier Island / Credit: Joshua McCormack

After settling into our accommodation at Orama, the local community, we were welcomed to the communal dinner. It brought back a flood of memories – I had been many times in that same hall as a child. It seemed as though the carpet, the tables, and the food hadn’t changed in over two decades. But the perspective now was quite different. And this time, I wouldn’t be heading back on the ferry.

Following dinner, we had a crew briefing to undertake a complete read-through of the plan for the days that followed, before retreating to our respective cabins and beds for the nights. One of my great fears was that I would be struck with insomnia, as had plagued me on several swims previously. Knowing that this was to be my last sleep until Wednesday evening, it was critical that I could sleep deeply and fully to build up the credits needed. I tried to not to think about not sleeping – a counter-intuitive thought in itself. Eventually, and almost effortlessly, I fell asleep. It was bliss.

Day one

I woke the next morning feeling refreshed and energized. Today was the day. The start of the swim was now only three hours away. After waking, we made our way to the meal hall where I would take down a breakfast that I had enjoyed on many occasions previously – a moderate serving of oatmeal paired with a glass of beetroot juice. There were now only a few final elements to finalise before the swim began. One of these included a determination on the perfect water temperature for the feeds that were to come. To ward off hypothermia in the cool mid-Autumn waters, I had planned to take hot liquid feeds. After much to-ing and fro-ing and many, many taste tests, we nailed down the ideal temperature. That was all to change on the second day of the swim, but more on that later.

As the crew started to gather the equipment and pack the boat for the journey ahead, I took a moment to gather my thoughts. I visualised the swim ahead, going through the entire swim in my mind: exiting Karaka Bay, swimming around Little Barrier, passing through Tiritiri passage, and eventually landing at Narrow Neck beach. At that point, I decided that I would walk out of the water rather than crawling, and so that was the imagery that I held to in my visualisation. I felt the emotion of finishing and buried that sensation deep within me. Visualisation has been, and continues to be, one of my most valued mental tools.

But the time for visualisation was over. The swim was about to begin.

A quiet moment before the swim begins / Credit: Joshua McCormack

A dream becomes reality

With an unspoken signal, I walked to the boat ramp that would act as the start point for the swim with the few remaining land-bound members of the crew. Dozens of people gathered. There were the teenagers who had been sent over for a school trip to spend time in the great outdoors. There were locals who had come to see what all the fuss was about. And there were primary school children who looked on with curiosity. All were there to witness the start of the swim, and it was beyond humbling.

One of the crew members, Marcel, set about lathering my body with two layers of skin protection – one was Sudocrem, a nappy rash cream with a component of Zinc Oxide for sun protection, and the other a blend of lanolin and petroleum jelly to ward off chaffing. With the layering of Sudocrem, I looked like a poor impression of a Geisha. Dean, the head of the Orama community, recanted a beautiful karakia (a Māori prayer) to bless the journey ahead and bring favour to our mission. This was the final step in the starting routine. Our lead observer, Mark, counted down. The hooter sounded. I walked into the water, slowly and deliberately. The water was cool but not cold, hovering just under 19 degrees Celsius. I walked until I was waist deep, and then, I took the first stroke.

The first five kilometres of the swim felt effortless. The rolling hills of Karaka Bay channeled us out toward the open ocean, where we were greeted by the magnificent Spirit of New Zealand (a spectacular three-masted barquentine). The swell and wind became obvious as we exited the safe harbour of Karaka Bay; however, neither element was incredibly disruptive. The crew sighted a pod of dolphins in the distance, stampeding away from Great Barrier Island. I felt relaxed and strong, with my mind fortified. The first 10 kilometres of the swim was ticked off in 2 hours and 40 minutes.

The first of the support swimmers joined after the first three hours of swimming. Under marathon swimming rules, support swimmers are able to swim alongside for a maximum of one hour with at least one hour of respite between support swimmers. Due to the coming dusk and the poor conditions that we were to encounter on the second day, there were only a handful of occasions where a support swimmer would join me during the duration of the swim.

The distance gradually closed between Great Barrier Island and Te Hauturu-o-Toi (more commonly known as Little Barrier Island), the first land marker. I consciously held myself back from looking ahead, preferring to look to the support boat on my left, a small rigid inflatable, so as not to break my flow state. On the few occasions that I chanced to look forward, Little Barrier Island was ominously shrouded in cloud. It felt like a scene from King Kong.

A scare, and a scare

Before long, we were off the northern tip of Little Barrier. The light was beginning to fade as day turned to dusk. It was here that the first major challenge was encountered. My gut became increasingly distressed. Meanwhile, my left tricep cramped and brought with it shoulder pain. After only 20 kilometres into the swim, this was not a good sign. The thought of abandoning the swim passed through my mind more than once. I binned those thoughts as they came forward. I came back to the why – if we were going to have any chance of bringing about change, I had to be successful with this swim. I had to push through it.

The feeding plan quickly went from being very structured to somewhat ad-hoc to manage the gut distress. Perpetuem, one of my cornerstone supplements, was temporarily dropped. Although there had been no concerns with this food source in the training, it appeared to be a contributor to the distress. It may have been that the sea sickness that I had battled the previous day was coming home to roost, although it’s difficult to say with any certainty whether or not this was a contributor. With the removal of one food source, another one joined the menu. I had previously sighted meatballs on the boat and had an incredible craving for hot, savoury food. On request, the crew willingly obliged. On the next feed I was given several meatlballs to chew down. Although they are certainly not the most easily digestible of foods, I cannot tell you how amazing they tasted.

Swimming around Little Barrier Island

Off the northern tip of Little Barrier Island, with the light of the first day fading Credit: Joshua McCormack

The arrival to Little Barrier Island and the advent of dusk brought with it more than one scare. I was happily swimming away when all of a sudden, a large, dark shape passed by my left side from the opposite direction with incredible speed. Startled, I swore to myself underwater and swam with a bout of furious energy to the support boat alongside me. “Did you see that?!”, I asked the crew. The answer came back negative. And so, with this assurance granted by the crew, I put my head underwater and went back to swimming. The mysterious shape came back another three times, each time passing with ferocious speed on my left side. With each occasion, the sensation of fear dulled slightly. To this day, I am still not sure what this mysterious vision was – whether a shark (there are many around Little Barrier Island), a seal, or a trick of my eyes in the dying light. With a lack of clear identification, I have tended to the latter. Given my uncertainty, I have chosen to remain tight-lipped on this experience until now.

We continued to swim past Little Barrier Island; an island that is not so small, in spite of its name. I knew that as we approached the western side of Little Barrier Island, I would be swimming against the ebb tide. As the last of the twilight fell, I could see the hills on the island contrasted against the darkening sky. The land seemed to stay completely stagnant, suggesting that I was not moving forward with any significant speed. It was disparaging, but I returned the focus instead to what I could control.

Peace and tranquility

The full darkness of the first night eventually came. Without the distraction of the light or relativity to land, I put full concentration into my stroke and the support boat alongside me, which was now illuminated by the red strip-lighting on its side. I had some trepidation coming into the night – not because of what may be beneath, but rather my ability to remain alert for the duration. That fear turned out to be a non-event. The cool water combined with supplementary caffeine and ongoing movement meant that there was no tiredness experienced whatsoever. I was kept entertained by the bioluminescence of the ocean; my arms sparking up each time they entered the water. The night swimming was a beautiful, peaceful experience. With each hour that passed, my gut distress retreated.

Night swimming

The blackness of night / Credit: Joshua McCormack

Knowing that the support crew were working on a three-hour shift pattern, I used this as a reference point to count down the hours of the night. There were four shift rotations before daybreak came, and I welcomed the first coming of light on the second day. Daybreak on the second day brought a psychological boost but not the euphoria that you might think. There was no picturesque sunrise from the east. A heavy cloud covered the sky and, with it, the wind grew increasingly stronger.

There was still 40 kilometres to go, and the swim was about to become very interesting.

The breeze builds

The wind and swell increased in ferocity with each hour that passed, with conditions becoming increasingly difficult. I knew that the coming segment would be challenging – a 20-kilometre distance from the waters off Kawau Island to Tiritiri Matangi, while swimming against the ebb tide. I chanced a look at Tiritiri Matangi, hoping to gather enough of a glance to give hope to the swimming efforts to come. This was a rookie error – being unable to sight the island sent me spiraling into a negative space. I returned to counting; one, two, one, two.

As an adjunct to counting, I also sang an adapted version of the “One Two, Buckle My Shoe” poem in my head, recounting this remixed version over and over again until I could reach a mindless flow state. Countless times, I sang: “One, two, buckle my shoe; three, four, knock on the door; five, six, pick up sticks; seven, eight, don’t be late; nine, ten, do it again!” And so, I would. Although it might seem ridiculous or bridging on insanity to repeat this chant over and over, it helped to give my monkey mind something other than the pain to focus in on.

Swimming in the ocean

Location: Middle of nowhere / Credit: Joshua McCormack

When we eventually reached Tiritiri channel, the tide shifted from an opposing ebb tide to a favourable flood tide. I knew that we needed to capitalize as much as possible on this portion, gaining the benefit of the following wind and tide to guide us close to home. It was difficult to up the ante any further. Beyond the discomfort that my upper body was suffering, my legs were shaking considerably and dragging terribly through the water. My immediate thought was that the shaking was brought on by hypothermia; I was starting to show the signs of a cooling internal core temperature with the tepid drinks served by the crew now feeling unbearably hot in my mouth. It eventually became clear that the shaking in my legs was brought about from severe muscular distress.

On shooting through Tiritiri channel, familiar landmarks started to come into view. Long Bay, a bay that I had swum to and from many times in the past, and a mere 15 kilometres or so from the finish line, was within sight. The recognition of a familiar landscape was both helpful and destructive. On the one hand, I realised how close I was to the finish, which provided me with a mental boost. On the other, the recognition of the distance to come snapped me out of my flow state. I knew exactly how far we were from the finish and it was now impossible to think about anything but this.

Subconsciously and going outside of the plan, I started to pull the crew toward the coast. My thinking at the time was that we would be able to avoid the full strength of the coming ebb tide if we were closer to shore, and that the strength of the waves would be lessened. A standoff commenced. The crew refused to give ground, sticking to the charted line. At times, this meant I was swimming more than 50 metres off the side of the support boat. Tempers rose and I became frustrated. At one point, I voiced this, saying to the crew: “I’m f***ing buggered, I’ve been swimming for 30 hours! Can you stop driving away from me!” Of course, I didn’t know exactly how long I had been swimming for: on good instruction, the crew had been requested to keep this from me. I’m ashamed of this outburst to this day, and there is nothing that justifies this kind of behaviour.

A snowman and a potato suit

Dusk came and with it the falling light of the second night. As darkness grew, so did my hallucinations. A snowman appeared on the front of the support boat alongside me. Not long after, Mark was dressed up in a potato suit. I started to see solar panels and picture frames on the water’s surface, and as I looked down in the water below me, I saw courtyard tiles. At one point, I asked the support crew: “Are you guys real?”. The line between lucid and dream blurred, as exhaustion and sleep deprivation came home to roost.

We continued to push forward, with winds up to 30 knots and steep waves of 2 metres in height. Narrow Neck beach, our planned destination, seemed impossibly far away. The crew were flogging me to get to the finish line, and I was willing to be flogged, but swimming into the now outgoing tide we were inching forward at a snail’s pace. The threat of the support boat crashing onto me with one of the incoming waves was increasing, forcing a difficult balance for the crew between staying close enough to maintain responsiveness in case I lost buoyancy, and on the other hand maintaining an appropriate distance to avoid the potential impact of the waves.

Skipper Hamish Wilcox sets the scene / Credit: Joshua McCormack

As we reached the waters off Campbells Bay, approximately five kilometres from the end destination, a safety decision was made by the crew to head into shore. The waves ahead were bouncing off the cliffs, becoming beyond dangerous. I was asked by the crew whether I was OK with the decision to prematurely finish the swim, to which I reportedly answered, “I don’t want to die tonight”.

Relief, pride, and a trip to the hospital

I used the light of a house on the shorefront to guide me home. The waves were incredible. Campbells Bay is not a surf beach, but the conditions belied this. I was eventually able to put my feet on the sand below. My legs were jelly beneath me, and I was collected on more than one occasion by the waves behind me. I maintained my best impression of walking, stumbling out of the breakers in a state of inebriation. Somehow, I moved beyond the waterline to officially demarcate the end of the swim.

Relief and pride washed over me. 99 kilometres of swimming later, the swim was over.

I was immediately escorted to the ambulance that was parked at Campbells Bay awaiting my arrival. It quickly became clear that I was quite hypothermic. My temperature was taken, and the thermometer could only indicate “low reading”. I was told that this occurs when the temperature is below 33 degrees Celsius. I was covered in towels and warming blankets and given a hot beverage to take down. My temperature returned to 37 degrees Celsius over the next 30 minutes or so, but it would be hours until it would properly stabilise.

Unbeknownst to me, a crowd had started to gather at Campbells Bay around the ambulance. Although the wind was gusting well over 30 knots and the skies had opened up, hundreds of people came out to show their support. The only indication I had of this was the noise around me – at one point, there was loud applause from the crowd that gathered. It was an incredibly humbling moment. In reflecting on this in the days that followed, I was amazed by how quickly people were able to gather given the change of destination. Some had even travelled from outside of Auckland to see the finish of the swim. To me, it displayed how the swim and the cause that the swim represented had captured the attention and imagination of the nation.

After a period of monitoring in the ambulance, the paramedics decided that there was enough doubt to refer me on to the hospital. I was escorted by the ambulance and dropped at the door of the hospital, still in my togs and with sand on my feet. Surprisingly, the blood test showed I had a stable balance of electrolytes. However, I had significantly elevated levels of creatine kinase, an enzyme that is released into your bloodstream when the cells in your skeletal muscles are damaged. Normal levels for a male are somewhere between 55 to 170 U/L. I had levels of 7,000 U/L. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was diagnosed with a case of rhabdomyolysis and held in the hospital overnight for surveillance while I was pumped full of intravenous fluid. Given my state, I was not one to argue.

Recovering in hospital

Sore and swollen all over, but satisfied

Given the time to reflect on my own in the hospital bed, I felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. We had done it. An unbelievable team had come together and achieved something that had never been done before in New Zealand. We had made history and, more importantly, we had turned the attention of the nation to the plight of the Hauraki Gulf.

The end of a great adventure

It is now almost three months since the swim as I write this final chapter. I could rationalise why it has taken me this long to put pen to paper. To write a saga such as this can be a chore in itself and something that is easily postponed. But, if I look a layer deeper, perhaps I have been holding off because to write this would be to mark an end in the story. And in truth, it’s a story that I never want to let go.

This moment in my life has been monumental. Yes, the achievement was significant and life-changing for me. Yes, the attention has been nice. But more than that, and I mean this from the deepest part of myself, I have been pulled into a purpose that I believe has now become my life’s work. In the combination of ultra-endurance swimming and ocean conservation, I believe I have found the highest expression of myself. It is a path that I will continue to walk for years into the future, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

And so, this marks the end of the Swim4TheGulf. The end of a great adventure. But the end only of this adventure. Watch closely, because I assure you there is more to come.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with one final message. Dream big, my friend. You’ll be surprised how far you can go.

Support crew

The on-water support crew legends

The wider support crew, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude (in no particular order): Les Gorvett, Michael “Bucky” Buck, Olaf Adam, Marcel Loubser, Mark Lenaarts, Ivan Polyntcev, Hamish Wilcox, Joshua McCormack, Gareth Cooke, Neven Fisher, Andy Tuke, Dougal Patterson, Bex Bowden, Jamie Sutcliffe, Glen Hoult, Analiese Le Roy, Gordon Ridler, Sarah Pigou, Peter Burling, Blair Tuke, Sally Patterson, Jodie Bakewell-White, Andrew Judge, Elaine Harris, Bill Connor


Bruce Hopkins
Bruce Hopkins
Aug 06, 2023

Kia ora Jono, thankyou for being so lucid in the retelling of your astounding feat. I don't know what your writing experience has been previously, however thus far I have felt your writing & way of portraying your lived experience, is frikkin superb. And what a wicked result ... " I have found the highest expression of myself " ... for you & for all the collaborators you already do, & will be interacting with through the ongoing journey. I have been an all year non wetie ocean swimmer for close to 14yrs. I refer to it as an addiction & a major component of my sanity recipe. Your deeds have genuinely deepened my sense of commitment & joy t…

Aug 13, 2023
Replying to

Bruce - for all of that, thank you. It's heartwarming to know that the swim inspired a fellow human and swimmer.

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